Friday, September 5, 2008

Phaze Fantasies, Vol. V

The faint tap of rain on the window was balanced by the blaze of a fire in the elegant hearth. The duke lifted a brow, a faint smile hovering on his mouth. "Name your price, St. Claire."

This was, of course, the tricky part. Nathaniel weighed his words a moment, for while he had made similar arrangements before, haggling with a wealthy, powerful peer of the realm was a bit different. "The monetary portion of our bargain is important to me, naturally. However, Your Grace, I have a stipulation you might find unusual that actually takes precedence over the price of my services."

"Is that so?" Robert Augustine, the seventh Duke of Caerleon, leaned back in the chair behind his desk. Tall, aristocratically good-looking with thick chestnut hair, austere features, and crystalline gray eyes, he was dressed informally for the interview in polished boots, fitted dark breeches, and a pristine white shirt open at the neck. A crystal decanter of brandy sat at his elbow, and as he asked the question, he moved to refill his glass. "Enlighten me as to this stipulation, though I doubt it will affect my decision. I wish for you and none other to paint my wife's portrait. Quite frankly, you are the best, and that is what I require."

The statement would have sounded arrogant except Nathaniel could tell it wasn't intended that way. The duke had more money than Croesus, or so rumor had it, and it was more a declaration of fact. He could afford the very best and didn't apologize for it.

"It would be my pleasure to paint Madame de la Duchesse's portrait, your Grace," he said with careful intonation. "It is my honor to have been asked. However, please be aware I want to do two paintings. One, the formal one you wish to commission and a second of my choosing, to be displayed at my discretion."

Caerleon paused in the act of lifting his glass to his mouth. "A second painting?"

"A nude."

The duke took a measured sip of brandy and set aside his drink. The expression on his handsome face was difficult to read. "Let me understand you, St. Claire. You wish to have my wife pose for you naked?"

"Yes. Exactly," Nathaniel said in a bland voice.

The fire crackled in the ensuing silence. At a guess, it was not often the formidably self-possessed aristocrat was without words, but he did appear to not know what to say. Nathaniel hadn't expected enthusiastic, instant agreement, so he sat quietly and took a drink from his own glass.

This was very important to him. An opportunity to advance his reputation that might only arise once in his lifetime.

Finally, Caerleon gave him a brittle, wry smile. "I take it if I do not agree to this rather outrageous request you will outright refuse to paint the formal portrait. Artistic blackmail, as it were?"

The duke didn't look infuriated or shocked, which was a good start. Relieved and hopeful, for he hadn't been certain he wouldn't be tossed out on the street on his ear, Nathaniel leaned forward a little in earnest persuasion.

"Your wife, Your Grace, is one of the most beautiful women in England. I did not think much about this, even after receiving your invitation for an interview, until I met her the other evening at Herr Mozart's opera, Le Figaro. I do not expect you to fully understand this, but as an artist, I know immediately when a subject is exceptional. The Duchess has more than beauty. There is an essence there I need to capture, and if I can do it properly, I believe it could be my finest work."

"I am impressed by your passion, naturally, but not certain I want the world ogling my wife's bare body."

That was the crux of the matter, and though not married, Nathaniel had enough empathy to understand the issue of male possession. ". Most of us have good imaginations, Your Grace. Do you honestly think no one pictures her without her clothing now? In the current fashions, the size of her bosom is not a secret, nor the narrowness of her waist--"

"Yes, yes, I get your point." The interruption was without rancor and Caerleon frowned. "Believe me, convincing me is not the most difficult part of all this, St. Claire. Even if I agree, which I have mixed feelings about, you will still have to somehow get Vanessa to consent. I won't say she is shy precisely, but certainly modest, almost to a fault. We have only been married two months, and if you can understand this, her sensibilities are still somewhat on the virginal side."

Nathaniel did understand. In fact, it was perfect. That was exactly what he wanted--no, needed--to capture. The underlying sensuality starting to awaken, the woman emerging from the innocent girl, passion as an essential part of life, the very thing that created every human being on the planet...

The more he thought about it, the more he had to paint this picture. He took a breath and asked the unforgivably personal question he needed answered. "Does she enjoy sex, Your Grace?"

Robert Augustine narrowed his gray eyes. Long, graceful fingers stilled on the side of his brandy snifter. "I beg your pardon?"

Nathaniel could lose very little by being blunt, and it was one of his most significant failings anyway. He smiled and lifted his brows. "Does she like to fuck?"